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Gessen writes: "With Putin apparently intent on being the President for life, it is instructive to know that, as evinced by Stalin's sudden death, the country can change quickly and unpredictably, in no small part because there are no beliefs or principles driving the behavior of any of the actors."

In Scottish director Armando Iannucci's film 'The Death of Stalin,' everyone is afraid of being killed, all the time. (photo: Nicola Dove/IFC Films)
In Scottish director Armando Iannucci's film 'The Death of Stalin,' everyone is afraid of being killed, all the time. (photo: Nicola Dove/IFC Films)

"The Death of Stalin" and the Terrifying Absurdity of a Tyrant

By Masha Gessen, The New Yorker

07 March 18


ohn Cheyne and William Stokes were nineteenth-century doctors who described a sort of labored, interrupted respiration sometimes seen among the dying. Their names have been part of everyday Russian language for sixty-five years, ever since the Soviet press announced that Joseph Stalin was ill and had “Cheyne-Stokes respiration.” The following day, March 5, 1953, came the announcement of Stalin’s death. Millions of people grieved in public (an unknown number died in a stampede, on the way to see Stalin’s body, marking a final act of senseless violence associated with the tyrant), and a small number celebrated in private. This year, as some Russians commemorated “Cheyne-Stokes Day” with Facebook posts, others laid four thousand red flowers at Stalin’s grave, on Kremlin grounds, in the center of Moscow. This was the sixteenth time that Moscow activists have held what they call “two carnations for Stalin,” an action honoring the memory of a dictator whom a growing number of Russians appear to view as a great leader and national hero.

In late January, Russia decided to ban the Scottish director Armando Iannucci’s film “The Death of Stalin,” which opens in New York on March 9th. This may have been the first time in post-Soviet history that a movie that had already been granted permission to screen was pulled from theatres by order of the government. What made the film so dangerous? A number of films about Stalin have been made in the past sixty-five years—including one in which Robert Duvall portrayed him as a creepy monster, and one entirely devoted to the tyrant’s bloody funeral—but this is the first movie that makes Stalin and his circle look absurd. In the first fifteen minutes, even before the generalissimus suffers his brain hemorrhage, Iannucci paints perhaps the most accurate picture of life under Soviet terror that anyone has ever committed to film.

In “The Death of Stalin,” everyone (with one possible exception) is afraid of being killed, all the time. As a result, a famous man wearing a bathrobe ecstatically conducts a Mozart concerto, as a literally captive audience sits in the hall, indifferent. Another man faints out of fear, after letting it slip that Comrade Stalin may not be the greatest classical-music expert in the world. At the very same time, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, drunkenly recounts to his wife everything he said or heard during a late-night party at Stalin’s dacha—and she writes it down, so that he may examine it in the morning in order to prepare himself for whatever punishment is coming. It all makes sense, because nothing makes any sense. Throughout the rest of the movie, after Stalin collapses in a puddle of his own piss and his inner circle immediately commences its struggle for power, no one says a word that he or she means—or, at least, not a word that he or she is not willing to retract immediately.

Iannucci shows something that few people understand about Stalin’s reign and its aftermath: that it was both terrifying and ridiculous, and terrifying in its ridiculousness. In a chilling scene, seven men, each of whom is hoping to succeed Stalin, debate a motion to “pause” arrests and executions and release some prisoners. They have no better reasons for sparing people’s lives than they had for condemning them, and they know this; their discussion is a tense ritual, the meaning of which remains obscure to everyone, including the participants. It’s easy to see how this would have offended the sensibilities of the Putin-era élite, which earnestly traces its lineage to Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Stalin—the bloodiest rulers in Russia’s bloody history. Putin’s Russia embraces its terrifying past but never its ridiculous past.

For the conspiratorially minded, another possible explanation for the ban comes halfway through the film. The pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), who has been engaged to play while Stalin lies in state, walks in, sees the body, and says, “Small. He looks so small.” This is the exact sentiment that the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky claimed Russian President Boris Yeltsin expressed upon being introduced to Vladimir Putin, in 1999.

A final possible explanation lies in the fact that the film shows Stalin to be mortal, and messily so. He seemed to think that he was immune from death; not only did he fail to put in place a succession plan but he also jailed all of the country’s best doctors. One might infer from the film that Putin is mortal, too—and that, like Stalin, he will die without a succession plan, and that his inner circle, like Stalin’s, will start fighting over his seat while he is still breathing.

A 2016 book by Joshua Rubenstein, “The Last Days of Stalin”—which is meticulously researched and not at all fictionalized or intentionally funny—portrays a Moscow in utter disarray for several years following Stalin’s sudden demise. The atmosphere of absurd unpredictability that emerges is comparable to the mood of Iannucci’s film. Given the similarity to the present day—a similarity apparent even to the Putin government, it seems—the book also offers some lessons for the present day. With Putin apparently intent on being the President for life, it is instructive to know that, as evinced by Stalin’s sudden death, the country can change quickly and unpredictably, in no small part because there are no beliefs or principles driving the behavior of any of the actors. Sixty-five years ago, the American foreign-policy establishment failed to understand this. Conventional wisdom in the United States also overestimated the cohesion and order of the Soviet system, and underestimated the importance of Stalin in shaping it and holding it together. Some American pundits even expressed the fear that, after Stalin’s death, hard-liners would come to power in the Soviet Union. Some of the same ideas pass for wisdom today, too: there is the idea that Putin’s role in shaping Putinism has been exaggerated, and the fear that, when Putin is gone, someone worse—more aggressive, more repressive, and more anti-American—will come to power. Putin might be right to both trace his heritage back to Stalin and fear the association. Meanwhile, many of the Russians celebrating “Cheyne-Stokes Day” this week were expressing hope for the doctors’ happy return. your social media marketing partner


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-5 # Timshel 2018-03-07 19:03
I find it disquieting that anyone is already writing about Putin's death. Putin is not Stalin no matter how much the mainstream media sock puppets try to demean Putin. If Putin were an American he would be seen as a principled patriot trying to take care of his country through autocratic rule, something too many Americans, unfortunately would agree with. It is hard to accurately assess Putin through the massive haze or even blizzard of neoliberal/neoc onservative propaganda. An article like this one is not an attempt at a careful understanding of but rather just another war promoting diatribe.
+13 # Michaeljohn 2018-03-07 20:29
Quoting Timshel:
If Putin were an American he would be seen as a principled patriot trying to take care of his country through autocratic rule, something too many Americans, unfortunately would agree with.

So, by that reasoning, and considering Donald Trump's admiration of Putin, would you say that Trump would consider himself a principled patriot trying to make his country 'great again' and secretly (perhaps not so secretly) longing for the power of autocratic rule?
0 # economagic 2018-03-07 20:47
I follow you right up to your last sentence. I read Ms. Gessen's piece as suggesting quite the opposite, that the Washington/medi a axis (excepting T-Rump, who is more of a hanger-on) is beating the neoliberal/neoC ON war drums on the premise that Putin IS like Stalin, and that his future successor may be even worse, so best to strike now (How?). It was in fact Clinton's neoliberal history with regard to Russia that led many progressives not to vote for her.
+2 # jsluka 2018-03-07 22:31
I don't know why you are getting the thumbs down. I agree with your point. When Geshen brings together Stalin and Putin in this article, whether its intentional or not, it plays into a subtext of the current political moment which is the demonisation of Putin. Those "thumbing down" should be fair and at least explain why they are reacting to your comment this way.
+5 # boredlion 2018-03-08 17:14
It might be helpful to point out that Masha Gessen was born and raised in the Soviet Union and has actually lived and worked in Russia. You?
+12 # Robbee 2018-03-07 19:29
i don't want dickhead to die in office - for the country i believe pence would be worse
+12 # dotlady 2018-03-07 20:07
Putin's background is not too clean, and while he may appear to some, including some Americans, to be a benign force in keeping Russia going, he actually operates in an unprincipled way, although he is quite clever at disabling resistance so far.
+18 # futhark 2018-03-07 22:06
The rationale for autocracy is often that it provides an efficient and stable environment to promote peaceful economic growth and national security. However, history reveals that these premises are universally false. Dictators become obsessed with their need to retain power, including their insistence on possessing infallible insight into effectively addressing challenging social and economic conditions. Unfortunately, autocrats usually lack the motivation or intelligence to adapt their ideology as needed and their suppression of competing ideas often leads to social and economic collapse of one kind or another. I'm not judging Mr. Putin here, but we should all be wary of would-be autocrats. I believe that the American political system was developed specifically to prevent the establishment of an ideologically stagnant and corrupt autocracy.

One of the most interesting accounts of Stalin's last days is to be found in the memoirs of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev.
+12 # sashapyle 2018-03-08 10:39
Good comment, Futhark. It bears noting that history shows a clear pattern of “strongman” dictatorships eroding democracy and benefiting the few via accelerated financial corruption. Normalizing the idea of the strongman (e.g. Trump’s praise for Duterte and Xi) serves to undermine the interests of women, children, the environment and education, i.e. the majority and the conditions required for majority survival.
+9 # economagic 2018-03-08 16:58
I would add that even in the absence of any individual "strongman" this country is far less democratic than it was even a decade ago. It was always far from perfect, and it has had ups and downs, but it has been in decline for some time and the rate of decline has certainly increased over the past couple of decades.

Historian Timothy Snyder's little 2017 book, "On Tyranny," provides a good standard against which to judge our situation, and (this came up again just yesterday) historian Nancy MacLean's book, "Democracy In Chains," explains a lot of the why and how, as major actors in academia, business, and government over the past sixty years have taken inspiration from the great defender and advocate of slavery John C. Calhoun. Calhoun's primary argument for the continuation of slavery was private property rights. Dr. MacLean appear to have coined the phrase, "property supremacists," which Jim Hightower picked up.
+11 # elkingo 2018-03-07 22:24
No. Putin,Trump and the Chinese pres. for life are the same in the crucial big dimensions: egoist dictators who need to be deposed to save the world. The entire global government culture sucks and needs a makeover. With the exception of Bhutan. O, the big 3 are also imperialist, fascist nuke armed mega states, a la Orwell.
Next letter tells you what I really think.
+10 # draypoker 2018-03-08 06:44
A few days ago two Russians living in western Britain were attacked by a nerve agent. It is reasonably suspected that the poison was delivered by agents of the Russian government, ordered by Putin. Putin is not all that different from Stalin. He has no moral sense.

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